From a grumpy Gen-X-er who never got to be a queer elder
It was 1990, and I was a gawky 14-year-old starting my sophomore year in an agonizing suburb of New Jersey, when I met my first gay friend. I didn’t know anything about queer people at that time, except the one thing the adults in my life made sure to instill in me at this most sex-crazed of ages: I mustn’t have sex, because if I did, even once, I would surely get AIDS and die.
My friend, in retrospect, was the most obvious gay to ever exist. But—and perhaps because of this—I quickly fell desperately in love with him. I loved his stylish, loud shirts, his Morrissey-esque coiffed hair, his flamboyant sense of humor, his unabashed love of music, theatre, and poetry. It wasn’t long at all before kids at our school started tormenting him for his presentation and behavior. They tortured him because he didn’t bother hiding his effeminacy. They called him the f-word and tripped him in the halls, and he made jokes about it. They stuffed him into lockers and lay in wait to beat him up after school, and he bore up.
I tried my best during that time to defend him, to stand up for him. I was asked, in the derisive tones only teenagers can muster, “What, are you gay too?” And I’d say, not because I knew but because I loved, “What if I was?”
I was lucky in some ways. While I was desperately unpopular, I was also six feet tall and looked very adult. Not many people were up for confronting me physically, even though in a fight I likely would have been entirely useless. So I served as a kind of shield while I was there, and while I couldn’t protect him from everything, I did keep him from the worst of it. (Until I left for college, and his final year saw brutality I couldn’t protect him from. He survived, just.)
In the three years I spent in high school with him (he was a year behind me), he never revealed his sexuality to me—until the last minute. Not because he hadn’t told other people, or wasn’t out. But because he knew how I felt—and he knew how shallow the pool was, in our high school, of boys he considered worthy of me. He figured that if I loved him, I could stay safe, the same way I tried to keep him safe.
I was heartbroken, of course, though some part of me had always known. And when I went off to college, to a small liberal arts school with a 60-40 female to male ratio and a huge gay population, I leaned hard into my adopted identity: I was the straight girl who loved hanging out with the queer folks. There was a term for it back then, but I don’t know if it’s even proper to say it anymore. Suffice to say that it rhymes with “glad rags,” an expression even less in use these days but at least not inherently offensive.
But even that designation wasn’t right. It took me until junior year to figure it out, but eventually fantasies about a slender brunette classmate in an exceptionally boring class about women in history (taught by a man) led me to realize, at last, that I’m bisexual.
It was even more years before I properly did anything about that, before I discovered that I was polyamorous and kinky, before I came to understand, quite late, the dimensions of my own sexuality. But by then I had already been allied and comfortable with queers for a long long time, long enough to feel a kinship, long enough to feel part of a larger community. Long enough to know what it was to want to love in a different way to the larger society, and to want chosen family around me who understood that “straight” society was broken.
And that’s the basic position from which I come into Pride Month. I’ve never been much for parades or huge flashy events. I certainly don’t recognize anything true in the “family-friendly,” corporatized Pride that exists in many cities these days. I lived through the days in which the word “queer” was in the process of reclamation from slur to proud self-identifier, and in the time since my baby-queer days, I’ve come to know many wonderful people who live under the ever-expanding alphabetical queer umbrella. And most of what I’ve learned over the years is that for the most part, people who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community are the people I want to be around. They are also the people that I tend to help in my professional life, which makes me feel good. And makes me feel proud.
I’ve had passing privilege for most of my life, and when I’ve been romantically partnered, it’s nearly always been to men. So it can be hard to see the other aspects of my sexuality and how I love. However long I’ve been what my friends in college called “family” in a queer context, however long I’ve made found family out of people who steadfastly lived outside the heteronormative construct, I never have been and never will be considered any kind of queer elder. I’ve never been quite flashy enough, quite loud enough, quite gay enough. But I’ve always felt welcome, always a part of it all.
And that in and of itself tells me that Pride is, and should be, about welcoming all folks who are looking for a place where they can be themselves. Where they aren’t going to get beat up or killed for who they are. Where they don’t need a six-foot-tall angry girl to protect them. Where nobody can tell them that they don’t belong there, so long as they harm none.
Here’s to a Pride Month that embraces all of it.